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Teen Alcohol and Drug Use

Condition Basics

What is teen substance use?

Many teens try alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. Some teens try substances such as alcohol or drugs only a few times and stop. Others can't control their urges or cravings for them. This can lead to a substance use disorder.

Teens may try a number of substances. These may include cigarettes, alcohol, household chemicals (inhalants), prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and illegal drugs.

Why do teens use drugs and alcohol?

Teens may use alcohol or other substances for many reasons. For example, they may do it because they:

  • Want to fit in with friends or certain groups.
  • Like the way it makes them feel.
  • Believe it makes them more grown up.
  • Want to escape problems.

Teens tend to try new things and take risks, so they may take drugs or drink alcohol because it seems exciting.

What problems can teen substance use cause?

Substance use can lead to long-term social and health problems, injury, and even death. For example:

  • Alcohol and drug use is a leading cause of teen death or injury related to car crashes, suicides, violence, and drowning.
  • Even occasional alcohol use by a teen increases the risk for future alcohol and drug use.
  • Substance use can affect growth and development. Teens who use alcohol and drugs may have trouble finding their identity, building relationships, and preparing for their future. Substance use can affect memory and learning.
  • Substance use can lead to unprotected sex. This increases the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.
  • Tobacco use can cause cancer and heart and lung problems.
  • Even casual use of certain drugs can cause severe health problems, such as an overdose or brain damage. Many illegal drugs are made in home labs, so they may contain bacteria and other unsafe substances.

What are the signs of substance use?

Sometimes it's hard to tell if a teen is using alcohol or drugs. Experts recommend that parents look for a pattern or a number of changes in appearance, behavior, and attitude, not just one or two of the changes listed here.

Signs that a teen may be using substances include a:

Change in appearance.

Examples include:

  • Less attention paid to dressing and grooming.
  • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss.
  • Red and glassy eyes, and frequent use of eyedrops and breath mints.
  • "Track marks" where drugs have been injected into veins.
Change in behavior.

Examples include:

  • Decreased attendance and performance at school.
  • Loss of interest in school, sports, or other activities.
  • Repeated health complaints, such as being overly tired.
  • Newly developed secrecy, or deceptive or sneaky behavior.
  • Withdrawal from family and friends.
  • New friends and reluctance to introduce them.
  • Lying or stealing.
Change in attitude.

Examples include:

  • Disrespectful behavior.
  • A mood or attitude that is getting worse.
  • Lack of concern about the future.

What can you do if you think your teen is using substances?

If your teen is using alcohol, tobacco, or other substances, take it seriously. One of the most important things you can do is to talk openly with your teen about the problem. Urge your teen to be open too.

Try not to use harsh, judging words. In most cases, an angry face-to-face meeting will push a teen away. Be as supportive as you can during this time.

If you don't know what to do or if you don't feel comfortable, ask for help. Talk to your teen's doctor, a pediatrician, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist.

What type of treatment can help a teen who is using substances?

The type of treatment your teen needs will depend on how bad your teen's substance use is.

If your teen:

  • Experiments with substances, then education through a school or community program may be all your teen needs. Some schools have programs that provide support and substance use education.
  • Uses a substance at least weekly, then some form of treatment is usually needed. Treatment helps motivate the teen to stop using substances and to learn skills to refuse drugs in the future. Family counseling may also be a part of treatment.
  • Has a substance use disorder, then treatment in a structured program is needed. And your teen may need medical help for withdrawal symptoms.

If your teen is using tobacco, your teen can get help to quit. Talk to your doctor. Medicines and support can help your teen succeed.

Can teen substance use be prevented?

Teens who don't use alcohol or other substances are less likely to use them as adults. Efforts to prevent teen substance use should start early in life. Ideally, your doctor should start asking about your child's attitudes toward substances in grade school and continue the discussion over time.

To help prevent substance use:

  • Talk to your child from a young age about what you expect. If your teen thinks that you'll allow substance use, your teen is more likely to try drugs or alcohol.
  • Keep your teen busy with meaningful activities, such as sports or other group activities.
  • Expect your teen to follow household rules. Set reasonable consequences for behavior that needs to change. Then consistently carry out the consequences.
  • Keep talking with your teen. Praise your teen for successes.
  • Know your child's friends. Having friends who avoid tobacco, alcohol, and drugs may be the best protection from substance use.

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Facts About Teen Drug and Alcohol Use

Substance use can lead to long-term social and health problems, injury, and even death. Growth and development can be affected by alcohol and other substances. Teens who use these substances may have trouble finding their identity, building relationship skills, and becoming emotionally stable. They also may have trouble preparing for their future. Substance use can affect memory and learning, which can harm a teen's schoolwork.

In some teens, substance use can grow quickly from experimenting and occasional use into a substance use disorder. Even occasional alcohol use increases a teen's risk.

Alcohol

Alcohol affects all organs of the body but has its most serious effects on the liver. Alcohol use:

  • Decreases the quality of sleep, especially if a person uses it often to help fall asleep.
  • Can cause problems with brain development in teens. Some teens who drink alcohol regularly may not learn how to handle stressful situations without drinking alcohol.
  • Makes it harder for a person to think and act quickly. It slows down thinking and moving, and it makes a person less alert. A car crash is more likely when a person drives after drinking alcohol.
  • Can lead to unprotected sex. This increases the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.

Marijuana

Marijuana can hinder memory, problem-solving, and learning. It can also cause mood swings, anxiety, and depression.

Cocaine

Cocaine can cause abnormal heartbeats, sometimes causing a deadly heart attack, seizure, or stroke.

Inhalants

Inhalants, such as glues and paint thinners, contain poisons that can cause brain damage or, in rare cases, even death with the first use.

Club drugs

Club drugs like ecstasy (MDMA), Rohypnol, or GHB can be dangerous, especially in overdose or when combined with alcohol or other drugs.

Methamphetamine

Meth can cause:

  • Seizures.
  • Stroke.
  • Serious mental problems, including paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions.
  • Long-term health problems.

Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens, such as LSD, can cause serious and lasting problems.

Opioids and other prescription drugs

  • Opioids and other prescription drugs can cause serious harm if they are misused. Misuse of opioids can lead to overdose and even death.
  • Use of opioids or other prescription drugs may lead teens to steal or resort to other dangerous or illegal behavior to buy drugs.

Anabolic steroids

Anabolic steroids can cause liver cancer and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Tobacco

Smoking can cause cancer and heart and lung problems. Smokeless tobacco like chew or snuff can cause dental problems and cancers of the mouth.

Learn more

Why Some Teens Use Alcohol and Drugs

Some teens try substances such as alcohol or drugs only a few times and stop. Others can't control their urges or cravings for them. This can lead to a substance use disorder. Personal, family, and community factors increase a teen's risk for using substances and maybe developing a disorder.

Personal risk factors

These include:

Genetics.

People with substance use disorder often have a family history of substance use.

Temperament and personality.

Rebelliousness, resisting authority, feelings of failure, and not having close relationships may lead a teen to use substances.

Certain health problems.

Teens who have untreated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, depression or long-term depressed feelings (dysthymia), post-traumatic stress disorder, or an anxiety disorder are more likely to use alcohol or drugs. Alcohol and drugs may make these conditions worse.

Wrong ideas about substance use.

Teens often have the wrong ideas about the harmful effects of substances. And they often think that "everybody does it" and so should they.

Early age at first use.

Using alcohol or other drugs at a young age greatly increases a teen's risk for having a substance use disorder.

Family risk factors

Teens are more likely to use alcohol or drugs if:

  • A parent uses alcohol or other substances.
  • A parent or teen has depression, anxiety, or ADHD.
  • They think their parents believe that it's normal for teens to experiment with alcohol and drugs.
  • Their family has frequent stress, conflict, or emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.
  • Parents aren't involved enough with their teens and don't supervise them. Harsh or inconsistent punishment or being too lax also can increase the risk of substance use.

Community risk factors

These include:

  • Access to substances in the home and community.
  • Peer influence. A teen may want to fit in with a group of peers who use substances.
  • Promotion of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs by the media. The entertainment and other media show alcohol and tobacco use as "cool" and as a way to gain popularity, success, and sex appeal.

Prevention Strategies

Positive self-esteem, a supportive family, and positive role models help teens gain confidence to make good choices. Even young children have opinions about substance use. So start early to help your child learn the skills needed to avoid substance use.

  • Be a good role model.

    As a parent, your attitude toward tobacco, alcohol, and drugs is one of the greatest influences on whether your child will use substances. If you have a substance use disorder, get help. If you quit, your teen is more likely to get help early if your teen starts using a substance.

  • Share your beliefs.

    They may not act like it, but most children listen to what their parents tell them. Talk with your teen about the effects of substances on emotions, schoolwork, and health. If you have a family history of substance use, talk with your teen about their increased risk for the same problems.

  • Get informed.

    Learn about the substances commonly used by teens. Find out how the drugs work, what their street names are, and what the signs of being under the influence are.

  • Stay connected.

    Know your teen's friends. Know where your teen is at all times. Set times when the family is expected to be together, such as at mealtimes. Plan family outings or other family fun activities.

  • Be fair and consistent.

    Extremes of discipline can increase the risk of substance use.

    • Expect your teen to follow the household rules. Set reasonable consequences for unacceptable behavior. Then consistently carry them out.
    • Use a parent-teen contract to write down expected behaviors and consequences if the plan isn't followed.
    • Praise your teen for successes.
  • Encourage activities.

    Keep your teen busy with meaningful activities, such as sports, church programs, or other group involvement. Teens who feel good about themselves are less likely to use alcohol and drugs.

  • Talk about the personal and legal consequences.
    • Talk about how the use of substances while trying to develop adult skills—like going to school or getting a job—can affect your teen's future.
    • Explain that substance use can lead to behaviors such as unsafe sex, sexually transmitted infections, and pregnancy.
    • Remind your teen that it's illegal for teens to use any substances.
    • Talk about the increased risk of car crashes, violence, and arrests because of substance use.

Learn more

Signs of Teen Alcohol or Drug Use

Sometimes it's hard to tell if a teen is using alcohol or drugs. Parents may worry that their teens are involved with drugs or alcohol if they become withdrawn or negative. But these behaviors are common for teens going through challenging times.

It's important not to accuse your teen unfairly. Try to find out why your teen's behavior has changed. Tell your teen that you are concerned.

Signs of teen substance use

Experts recommend that parents look for a pattern or a number of changes in appearance, behavior, and attitude, and not just one or two of the changes listed here.

Signs that a teen may be using substances include a:

Change in appearance.

Examples include:

  • Less attention paid to dressing and grooming.
  • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss.
  • Red and glassy eyes, and frequent use of eyedrops and breath mints.
  • "Track marks" where drugs have been injected into veins.
Change in behavior.

Examples include:

  • Decreased attendance and performance at school.
  • Loss of interest in school, sports, or other activities.
  • Repeated health complaints, such as being overly tired.
  • Newly developed secrecy, or deceptive or sneaky behavior.
  • Withdrawal from family and friends.
  • New friends and reluctance to introduce them.
  • Lying or stealing.
Change in attitude.

Examples include:

  • Disrespectful behavior.
  • A mood or attitude that is getting worse.
  • Lack of concern about the future.

Learn more

Diagnosing Teen Alcohol or Drug Use

If you think that your teen is using alcohol or drugs, gather all the information you can before you take your teen to a doctor. This will help ensure an accurate diagnosis.

If the doctor believes that your teen may have a substance use disorder, the doctor will:

  • Ask about your teen's past health and do a physical exam.
  • Want to talk with your teen in private. The doctor will ask questions about your teen's attitude toward substance use, the history of use, and any effects of drug use.

The doctor may try to find out if your teen has certain conditions, such as:

These health problems are common in teens who use substances. Your child's doctor will want to treat these problems as well as the substance use.

The doctor may refer your teen to a professional who is experienced in teen substance use disorders.

Urine, blood, or hair drug analysis (toxicology testing) or a blood alcohol test isn't usually done to diagnose a substance use disorder. And most health professionals won't do these tests without the teen's consent. A parent's consent isn't enough unless there's a medical or legal reason for testing.

Screening test for substance use

Children and teens often experiment with lots of things, including alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.

Your child's doctor will ask your child questions to get a better idea of any substances your child may have tried. This is called screening. The answers help the doctor know if there are signs of a problem.

If you don't think that your child or teen has been screened for substance use, you can ask the doctor to do a screening test.

Learn more

Finding the Right Treatment for Your Teen

You can help find the right treatment for your teen and help your teen succeed during and after treatment.

  • Find the right treatment.

    Talk with a health professional about treatment options in your area.

    • Ask about programs for teens. Adult programs don't meet the needs of teens. The adult programs usually stress long-term health and relationship effects of a substance use disorder. These effects aren't as great of a concern for teens.
    • Consider whether your teen needs to be in an inpatient or outpatient program. Look for a program with the features your teen needs. These may include a school program or opportunities for parental involvement.
  • Be involved in the treatment and aftercare program.

    Let your teen know that you support them. It may take a long time for your teen to reestablish trust, to be forgiven by you, and to forgive themself.

  • Get help for your family.

    Talk with a health professional about help for you and your family. Your family members need to know that they didn't cause the disease but that their behavior can affect the disease. Support groups such as Al-Anon and Alateen may be very helpful for family members.

  • Help your teen find a direction.

    Having a sense of direction in life is important for your teen to stay substance-free. Treatment usually includes help for teens to identify their talents and strengths. Teens can use this knowledge to find healthy interests, hobbies, and jobs.

Treatment for level of use

The type of treatment your teen needs will depend on how severe your teen's substance use is.

Experimenting.

If your teen has started experimenting with substances, then education through a school or community program may be all your teen needs. Some schools have programs that provide support and substance use education.

Weekly use.

If your teen is using a substance at least weekly, then some form of treatment is usually needed. Treatment helps motivate the teen to stop using substances and to learn skills to refuse alcohol or other substances in the future. Family counseling may also be a part of treatment.

It's important to pay close attention to your teen's concerns. They may be related to emotional or self-esteem problems. Help your teen find activities that can take the place of substance use.

Substance use disorder.

Teens who have substance use disorder use alcohol, drugs, or both even though it causes harm to themselves or others. It can range from mild to severe. The more signs of this disorder a teen has, the more severe it may be. People who have it may find it hard to control their use. Your teen will need treatment in a structured program. If your teen is physically dependent on a substance, your teen may need medical help for withdrawal symptoms.

Teens who use heroin or misuse other opioids (opioid use disorder) may be referred to a medication-assisted treatment program. These programs use medicines such as methadone. Medicines may help control cravings, ease withdrawal symptoms, and prevent relapse.

If your teen is using tobacco, your teen can get help to quit. Talk to your doctor. Medicines and support can help your teen succeed.

Types of programs

There are several types of substance use treatment programs for teens. But the two basic categories are inpatient programs and outpatient programs.

Whatever type of program you choose, it should:

  • Consider teen developmental issues, such as peer pressure and the need to test limits.
  • Provide a way for your teen to continue their education. It may boost self-confidence and self-esteem if your teen can do even small academic tasks during treatment.

Inpatient programs

Inpatient programs are highly structured and closely supervised in a hospital or treatment center. The teen stays day and night during treatment.

  • These programs provide education and individual, family, and group counseling. They're often based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
  • The programs usually have an aftercare program that provides support and encouragement.

Other types of inpatient programs are:

  • Therapeutic communities. They aren't based in a hospital. Teens do a series of tasks with constant feedback from peers. These programs may last up to 2 years. Some teens choose to stay and work in the program after treatment.
  • Wilderness challenge programs. These combine a wilderness experience and some form of treatment. The goal is to help teens communicate better with their families, control their anger, and build healthy relationships. A variety of programs are available. Their quality varies greatly. They are expensive and tend to limit contact with parents. Talk with a health professional if you are thinking about sending your teen to one of these programs.

Outpatient programs

Outpatient programs range from very structured programs with psychotherapy and family therapy to drop-in centers.

  • Day treatment programs require that the teen spend 8 hours or more during the day at the facility. But the teen comes home at night. Like inpatient programs, day programs usually offer one-on-one, group, and family counseling. But day treatment normally costs less.
  • Less intensive outpatient programs are designed for young people who don't need as much time in day treatment or to be in an around-the-clock treatment center. Treatment includes one-on-one or group counseling and family therapy. Treatment in the teen's own community makes it easier for the family to be involved.

What to do if your teen relapses

Returning to substance use, called relapse, is common after treatment.

Getting a teen to stop using alcohol or other substances is only the first step. Substance use fills an emotional need. That need has to be satisfied in a healthy way for your teen to be able to stay off the substance.

Relapse is less likely if your teen:

  • Is motivated by the treatment program to stop using and to learn the skills to deal with drug cravings, high-risk situations, and relapse.
  • Can commit to being substance-free.
  • Has or finds a healthy hobby or interest.
  • Gets treatment for other health problems your teen may have. Examples may include ADHD, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or an anxiety disorder.
  • Is involved in an aftercare program or case management.

It's important to know that:

  • Relapse isn't a failure on the part of your teen or the treatment program. Recovery from a substance use disorder is hard, and it takes time.
  • There may be setbacks that your teen will need to overcome one step at a time. Most teens need to go through treatment more than once and follow a long recovery process.

Learn more

Credits

Current as of: November 8, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Patrice Burgess MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Peter Monti PhD - Alcohol and Addiction
Christine R. Maldonado PhD - Behavioral Health

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